Employers are constantly complaining about school, college and university leavers being launched into the world of work without the necessary skills. Twenty-somethings fresh out of university and now scouring the job ads may have heard the joke before. It runs: What do you say to a sociology graduate? Answer: Big Mac and fries please.
For many young graduates, not only in sociology but subjects across the board, the quip will ring worryingly true. While most have not been reduced to serving up burgers to earn a crust, statistics show that increasing numbers are finding employment in temporary rather than career-orientated jobs. With three or four years of costly higher education under their belts, many feel short-term clerical jobs or telephone sales are hardly testing their abilities.
However, surveys of employers, cautiously recruiting as the feel-good factor takes hold, reveal the other side of the coin. In the wake of a damaging recession, small and medium-sized firms in particular want staff who are equipped for the workplace without expensive nurturing. Graduates, seen to offer plenty of potential but little or no practical experience, are often too costly an option. At the same time, the traditional milk round, in which major companies trawl universities for bright young things, is in its death throes, leaving graduates who may have had little or no careers advice to seek out jobs unaided.
In Birmingham, where graduate unemployment mirrors the national figure of just over one in 10, the mismatch between graduates' skills and employers' needs began to tax the minds of staff at the city's training and enterprise council.
The result, funded by the TEC and run by the University of Central England's management and business development centre, is the Graduate Fast Track into Management programme - a 15-week intensive course designed to offer jobless young graduates the vocational skills they need to appeal to employers seeking management material. They aim for a national vocational qualification level 3 in management and, ideally, a suitable job. Almost six months after the pilot course, all the 28 students in the first intake have gained the NVQ or a job, 18 per cent have found paid posts, a second programe is under way and a third is planned for later this year.
The dynamic Birmingham TEC, which sponsored the initiative using Pounds 120,000 from its Youth Training credits pot, believes the pioneering scheme has proved a successful model in response to a frequently overlooked national problem. Data from the Institute of Employment Studies annual graduate review for 1995-6 reveals that 42 per cent of graduates are in temporary jobs inappropriate to their qualifications.
In Birmingham, according to TEC sector coordinator Barbara Hughes, the job market is picking up but all too often employers are rejecting graduates in favour of cheaper school leavers to fill vacant posts. "We had to find a way to bridge the gap and give the graduates the practical business skills and experience to match their academic qualifications," she said.
After devising the programme, open to graduates aged up to 25 within the TEC area, the TEC and UCE moved quickly. They advertised it at a graduate recruitment fair last September, and were indundated with requests for more details. The first course, which began in December, could have been filled twice over, according to programme director Philippa Bonelle.
The students who won places, each receiving a training allowance of Pounds 60 a week, threw themselves into a packed schedule covering workplace essentials such as financial management, communications, health and safety and IT, together with more abstract skills such as teamwork and problem-solving.
"Often the graduates had many of the skills required, but had never been shown how to recognise them," said Ms Bonelle. "They might have organised a five-a-side team at university or done voluntary work - we had to help them draw out what they had gained."
The management NVQ, which would have taken 12 or 18 months to complete in the workplace, included a series of practical tasks for students to complete in teams, plus individual projects they carried out for an employer on work placement - the other key element of the course and the route which led many to a permanent post.
The businesses involved, ranging from engineering and law firms to manufacturing and service industries, more than got their money's worth in exchange for a training place. One firm raised Pounds 30,000 in sales of new blazer badges designed by one graduate on placement, but was unable to hold on to her in the face of other job offers.
Ms Bonelle is reluctant to criticise universities' careers guidance, but admits the first batch of graduates, from a cross-section of disciplines as diverse as law and engineering, were "floundering a bit and feeling at a loss".
"We tried to help them increase their marketability. It is not that they would not have got jobs without the programme, but we helped them gain a much clearer idea of what they wanted to do and how to get there."
To encourage fast-track students to help each other in future, UCE hopes to set up an alumni club to aid networking. Meanwhile, the TEC is preparing to launch a new database, Graduatelink Birmingham, to provide employers with a list of potential graduate employees.